Please read on for the Introduction.
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was coined by Karl Popper, who defined ‘the conspiracy theory of society’ as the false belief ‘that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design’. Today, we tend to describe specific instances of this explanatory style as ‘conspiracy theories’. Conspiracy theories are united by the claim ‘not [only] that conspiracies happen, but that they are the motive force in history’, and require ‘that there is an omnipotent secret group of people plotting to increase their own power at the expense of ordinary people’. They constitute ‘an explanation of politics [which] … purports to locate and identify the true loci of power … [among] conspirators, often referred to as a shadow or hidden government, [who] operate a concealed political system behind the visible one, whose functionaries are either ciphers or puppets’. Such theories ‘add up to an idea of the world in which the authorities, including those we elect, are systematically corrupt and untruthful’. The associated mindset has been described as ‘politically corrosive’, potentially leading to scapegoating and violence as part of a withdrawal from democratic politics.
The roots of conspiracist thinking are to be found in medieval superstitions that became secularised in the aftermath of the French Revolution. This point was first made by Joshua Trachtenberg while the Holocaust was at its height, and was further developed by Norman Cohn, who had encountered SS officers and their reading materials in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In pre‑modern Europe, Jews were widely viewed as ‘a league of sorcerers employed by Satan for the spiritual and physical ruination of Christendom’, and since the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, they have been reimagined as ‘a conspiratorial body set on ruining and then dominating the rest of mankind’, with the allegation of sorcery being replaced by the superficially more rational allegation of ‘technological and economic mind control’ through ‘banks, mass media, government, [and] education’. The ‘blood libel’ – the accusation that Jews conspire to murder children and drink their blood – is a closely related pre‑modern myth that circulates in rationalised form even today.
It is these forms of discourse that Herf sees as having been ‘most important in fostering [the] radical, genocidal implications’ of antisemitism under the Nazis. However, Jewish people have not been the only victims of this dark tradition. The medieval European imagination conceived of heretics and witches in a very similar way to Jews, including through the allegation of child‑murder and child‑eating, and accusations of heresy and witchcraft were used for centuries as a tool of repression, with barbaric punishments carried out as a public spectacle. Moreover, the first targets of early conspiracy theorists Augustin Barruel and John Robison were not the Jews but the Freemasons and the (in reality, no longer extant) Illuminati, and both the Nazis and the Francoists persecuted Freemasons harshly (although it should be noted that German Freemasons were able to escape persecution by leaving the organisation and aligning themselves with the Nazi regime).
Given conspiracy theories’ roots in pre‑modern superstition, it seems paradoxical that they should be so closely associated with the internet. However, there exists a substantial body of research to indicate that social networking and media sharing platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram serve as vectors for the dissemination of conspiracy beliefs and related forms of misinformation. Moreover, there are other popular online platforms where conspiracy theories have been found to circulate extensively, such as the comments sections of major newspapers. Lastly, while conspiracy theories are partly a grassroots phenomenon, they are also the stock‑in‑trade of such online influencers as Alex Jones and David Icke. Perhaps more akin to scammers than to propagandists, these professional conspiracy theorists are able to extract large sums of money from their audiences through merchandising and online retail, as well as through fundraising drives, and have generated substantial advertising revenue for social networking and media sharing platforms.
In context of the UK’s counter‑terrorism strategy, radicalisation is officially defined as ‘the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism’ (where extremism is defined as ‘vocal or active opposition’ to values such as ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’). Given the above observations, there is a clear risk that conspiracy theories may play a role in radicalisation so defined. Indeed, in 1970s Britain, one social psychologist found that conspiracy theories formed part of a sophisticated far‑right radicalisation strategy in which potential recruits were invited to order literature that would fill in the explicitly racist details that publicly disseminated conspiracy theories left out, and the subsequently published autobiography of a former leading neo‑Nazi confirms that his own radicalisation almost exactly followed this pattern. However, the radicalising potential of conspiracy theories is not necessarily limited to cases where they are disseminated by extremist organisations. The FBI, for example, has reported as follows:
The FBI assesses [that] anti‑government, identity‑based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace over the near term, fostering anti‑government sentiment, promoting racial and religious prejudice, increasing political tensions, and occasionally driving both groups and individuals to commit criminal or violent acts.
Direct calls to specific action are not typically made by leading conspiracy theorists, but their pronouncements often appear calculated to inspire feelings of grievance. For example, a book written by a conspiracy theorist frequently retweeted by US President Donald Trump begins by announcing its author’s intention to arouse ‘outrage at being lied to for so many years by the monstrous and well‑oiled machine known as the Deep State’. The question arises of whether the relatively unconstrained online circulation of such discourse in the absence of an explicit radical programme may nonetheless produce a general climate of undirected radicalism in which a proportion of individuals may spontaneously resort to acts of terrorism or perhaps even accept leadership from violent extremists. As the remainder of this report will show, the answer appears to be: Yes. But as the final section will argue, there is fortunately no reason why mainstream social networking and media sharing platforms should continue to perpetuate that state of affairs.Read full report View infographic